An Ancientrail, Still Traveled

Samhain                                                  Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

Tracking down a quote from a Mary Oliver book led me to Plato and to his Symposium, in particular a portion dedicated to the mysteries of love.  It reminded me of my initial excitement in studying philosophy, created in large part by J. Harry Cotton, a professioral stereotype at Wabash College.  He wrapped tobacco in a light paper plug, inserted it into his pipe, applied a match and away we went into the history of Western philosophy, J. Harry’s head wreathed in tobacco smoke.  He often quoted whole pages of Plato or Aristotle in Greek, showing us the key words on the blackboard, explaining the intricacy of their translation and how an interpretation could turn on a single word.  I’d never met any one like J. Harry and my memory of him is still fond.

The excitement he stirred slowly winked out when I had to transfer to Ball State University, out of money for Wabash.  There the logical positivists still reigned, even though their star had already fallen in graduate schools across Europe and the US.  At Ball State I had the opposite of J. Harry, Robert something.  He was the head of the department and an avowed enemy of all metaphysics and a champion of philosophy as clarifier of scientific language.  What exactly do we mean by cold?  Hot?  Solid?  Gas?  Not unimportant question in a techn0-scientific age, but hardly inspiring.  At least to me.

I finished out my philosophy major, but added one in anthropology because my passion for it, once lit, did not go out.  This was all a long, long time ago.  I graduated from Ball State in 1969, so that’s, what?  41 years and another millennium in the past.

What is truth?  Justice?  Beauty?  How do we know what we know?  What is a sound argument?  What is a weak one?  Why?  How have ideas about these big questions changed over time?  And why?  What do they matter now, in our world?  This was what interested me and the logical positivists had nothing to teach me in regard to them.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that I ended up in Seminary, where those questions still matter and where there are answers and the history of the answers.

Ironically, of course, I have come to inhabit the flattened, anti-metaphysical world of the logical positivists, but not from the perspective of clarification and rejection of metaphysics, but from the standpoint of existentialism.  In this new world, which I’ve inhabited since 1991 or so, gnothi seauton, know thyself,  inscribed over the door within the Temple of Apollo at Delphi that lead to the Oracle, has been my holy writ.  Rather than books full of poetry, creation myths, messiahs and anti-Christs, I have two words.  They’re enough for me, though.  More than enough.

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